Another dot in the blogosphere?

Do the least harm (Part 2)

Posted on: October 15, 2014

Earlier today I explained the background and rationale for my belief in doing the least harm.

Now I suggest strategies for providing the most help and provide an example of help that actually does harm.

One strategy I try to use is to create a long term relationship. Instead of a hit-and-run, I would rather position myself as a strategic shepherd who can keep change agents on track, or who they can call upon when someone cries wolf. This strategy works only if the group I am working with is open to this idea.

Another thing I do before getting involved in any project is to find out as much as possible about the person or group asking for help. I spend time and effort meeting and getting to know them. If I can, I travel the their physical location to get a feel of the place. I conduct focus interviews with a representative group of staff.

I do these things because it starts from a philosophy of doing the least harm.

However, there are others, particularly those outside the education arena, who walk in with different motivations.

Some educators in my network have voiced concerns about so-called education conferences. Thought leader @mcleod’s reflection on wasting opportunities at ed tech conferences is a must read.

I would like to raise two other concerns that are just as insidious. One is who is asked to “help”. Another is why the “help” is rendered at all.

A blunt question a few of us have started asking is: Why do we keep flying in foreigners who do not understand our context in to “help” us? This is not a xenophobic or racist-fueled question. It is a critical look at ourselves.

I am all for getting an outside perspective or two. It helps us think outside the box. But can we not help ourselves? Do we not have the expertise or the creativity? Given the circles I am in and the people I know, my answer is yes.

But I wager that we fall short in at least two areas. We are not as open as some folks are in the anglosphere and we may not be as articulate or charismatic.

While both these factors are a function of our culture, being open is also a matter of time. We cannot help but move with the times. Both the logic and economics of being more open are unavoidable.

The value placed in having a stage presence is a function of how conferences are currently designed. You sit and listen; they talk. As this is the worst way to learn, the speakers have to be very engaging to minimize damage.

But conferences do not have to be designed this way. The measure of success from the organizer’s point of view is bums on seats. Conference organizers need to be honest about how the other ends yawn in boredom, nod in dreamland, or steam in frustration.

I have made this point and mentioned strategies like unconferences while speaking at conferences. Conference organizers who attend my sessions and see me backchannel or jump off stage have asked me for strategic advice. When I give it, I get the “but, but, but” responses. Those “buts” will lead to unhappy butts in seats for a long time.

This leads to my second concern of why conference organizers choose to enter the messy field of education.

There is a lot of money to be made in our field and the conference organizers know it. They have done their market research, gap analyses, and risk assessment. They are entitled to make money. The question is how and why they do it.

I am all for people who want to help for the right reasons. I am against people who help but do nothing to mitigate the harm in the process. I go ballistic on people who are in it for the wrong reasons.

Consider the middle group. They might have their collective heads and hearts in the right place, but they still do harm in the short and long term. They bring in experts who do not share our context. Our leaders and change agents borrow ideas and try to implement them by investing time, effort, and money. These ideas tend not to work not because of resistance on the ground, but because they are superficial (see @mcleod’s post) or they need to be recontextualized.

The pace of change is greater than the pace of implementation. Shrewd conference organizers know this, and even if they use antiquated lecture methods, they can start the cycle again.

They enable insidious harm by not promoting contextualized self-help and by perpetuating the same strategies. Do not be fooled if they claim to have a mix of speakers; see who they highlight in their publicity material. Do not accept that you must pay a lot of money and attend boring lectures. Do not be tempted by free sessions that are cleverly disguised advertising or marketing.

We are as much to blame. It is our choice of who we listen to that harms us. It is our choice of fueling these conferences with our attendance that harms us.

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